There are so many areas and people to give thanks to after the 49ers instant-classic victory over the New Orleans Saints to advance to the NFC Championship. But in this particular piece, I'd like to tip my hat to quarterback Alex Smith for a job well done. The once-dismissed passer has had a miraculous turnaround under first year head coach, Jim Harbaugh; and it seems to be due to a mix of technical and mental attributes Smith has developed.
In the win over the Saints, Smith outplayed record-setting quarterback Drew Brees at his own game. #11 was asked to drop back and pass 42 times; completing 25 for 299 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. And on a third and long with a little more than 2 minutes left in the game, Smith took a quarterback sweep for a 28-yard score.
The big picture is Smith is winning games. But all people like Stephen A. Smith can do is watch and complain without bothering to figure out why. Well, I bothered to rewind Saturday's epic match-up between San Francisco and New Orleans to see what exactly Smith has been doing right. What has he been doing differently to engineer wins?
1. Ball Placement
This year, Smith has progressed game-to-game with ball placement on his passes. He has shown the ability to now deliver the ball to otherwise covered receivers, which is what the elite quarterbacks do in this league. It also allows his receivers to make a play on the ball, showing his trust in them, which goes a long way on and off the field. The ball placement also translates to keeping it away from the defender, where only his receiver can bring it in and thus limiting turnovers. And finally, Smith's improvement in this area puts his athletic playmaking targets in position to get serious YAC.
Smith made some big time throws in big time moments that couldn't have been made without the leap in that part of his game.
2. Understands Playbook
A big factor to the 49ers new found success is Smith's grip on the playbook; his mechanics and mindset fit the offensive scheme. He understands the game isn't won in the first quarter, and therefor doesn't rush things and allows the team to naturally get in sync. Smith will throw the ball away if the play isn't there and move onto the next play, unharmed. He also comprehends each play; its purpose and design. Smith won't divert from the play design, which assists in him being protective of the football but also allows him to take his shots. Additionally, Smith has been spreading the ball around this season like never before; he found 8 different receivers vs. New Orleans in the Divisional Playoff round.
3. "Unshakeable Confidence"
Harbaugh made note of the term "unshakeable confidence" early on in his welcoming to the 49ers organization. It was something Harbaugh had said to the media, but something that certainly proved to be true later on. It was a trait of his that he imparted upon the entire team, especially Alex Smith. Smith has played fearless. He gets hit, and more often than not, steps into those hits in order to deliver ball to the receiver. He has the confidence, not only in himself, but in his teammates and coaches. Smith has fully bought into the system, which is vital, because as it's unfolding in front of our eyes, he is the system.
Oh, and he'll also gash your defense for a 28-yard rushing touchdown. Once again, confident and unafraid.
4. Can Produce Under Pressure
Whether the pressure comes from the moment or from a 300-pound defensive lineman, Alex Smith has developed a calmness about himself. He has stepped up big in multiple pressure-filled wins this season against teams like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York (N), Pittsburgh, Washington, Seattle and St. Louis. He plays for sixty whole minutes and deals with pressure; tangible or intangible. Smith's moment against New Orleans, with :14 left on the game clock and down by 3, was nothing short of spectacular. The timing, the delivery, the trust and the 85-yard drive that came before it was the ultimate display.
He no longer buckles with rushers in pursuit of him, but instead makes an intelligent quarterback decision.
These are just a few of many things Smith has improved on to help get himself and the 49ers to the NFC Championship. And not only play in it, but host it at home.The next opponent is a familiar one, in the New York Giants, who already went on the road to face San Francisco this year. They are a team that likes to bring pressure and has 3 or 4 outstanding pass rushers in Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka.
Smith has also been able to feel pressure and react accordingly, while keeping his eyes down field or dumping the ball to his check down. His awareness is at a level it has never been before. On top of that, Smith's mantra of getting better every week is eerily coming to fruition -- he really does seem to be getting better every week. If he plays his game, his performance should neutralize the Giants' attempts to rattle him.
The New York Giants depend heavily on their ability to force opposing quarterbacks to make mistakes. Alex Smith is a quarterback who doesn't really make mistakes anymore, and neither does the team itself. If the offensive line can continue to keep Smith upright for the most part like they have, I think it's been proven that Smith can deliver.
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